Sunday, June 2, 2013

Acts of Kindness

In March, I wrote a blog entry entitled “Should Autism Be Neither Seen Nor Heard?” describing incidents reported in the media where children with autism and their parents had been treated badly in public places because of the children’s behavior. Fortunately, we have not had to face scorn in public, partly because Alex likes going places and generally behaves well when he is out and mainly because Ed and I make certain that his behavior never disturbs others. Keeping Alex close at hand, watching for cues that he’s becoming overwhelmed, knowing where all exits are located, and moving rapidly to remove him from others’ view should he become agitated, we never want him to bother other people. Nonetheless, we would hope that other people would be patient, tolerant, and understanding should he have a sudden meltdown, knowing that he really can’t help his behavior when anxiety overtakes him. Moreover, we would do everything in our power to calm him and remove him from the situation so that he wouldn’t be disruptive to other people.

To avoid ever having a public incident, parents whose children have autism would have to stay home all the time, which would not be conducive for their learning social skills and proper behavior in public. While taking these children places may involve some risk, we won’t know if our kids can handle situations until we test them. What has been a pleasant surprise for Ed and me is that not only have we found people who are tolerant of Alex’s differences but are also genuinely kind and willing to be especially thoughtful in their dealings with him.

Last week, we took Alex to the doctor because he has another outbreak of thrush, or yeast overgrowth in his mouth. We have only been seeing this doctor a few months, but we have been especially impressed with how kind he and his staff are to Alex and us. Knowing that Alex is fascinated with numbers and vital statistics, the nurse always tells Alex his weight, temperature, blood pressure, and pulse and tells him what they were the last time he was there. In addition, she makes certain to show him the monitor screen for the electronic blood pressure cuff so that he can watch the numbers change as it registers. While that gesture may seem small, it means a great deal to Alex, and even more to us as parents who appreciate someone making Alex happy. Similarly, the doctor has such a wonderful bedside manner with Alex, explaining everything to him as he exams him and speaking to him in a gentle yet never condescending manner. Not surprisingly, Alex actually looks forward to going to the doctor because they have made appointments such a pleasant experience for him.

Yesterday we took Alex to a Celebration of Wildlife at a nearby county park. Every weekend we try to find outings for him as a way for him to get out of the house, be around other people, and learn new things. The main attraction at this event was a large tent with several animal displays from veterinarians, animal rescue groups, and a zoo. The highlight for Alex was seeing turtles and tortoises, which are among his favorite animals. At one exhibit, he was intently observing a turtle when a young woman asked him if he would like to touch the turtle. His eyes lit up, and he shyly told her yes. She picked up the turtle, assured him it was very nice, and encouraged him to touch its shell. He was pleased to have this opportunity, and we were impressed by how sweetly this young woman spoke to Alex and allowed him to have a special hands-on experience. After that, she offered to let him pet a lizard from the display, also assuring him that the animal was nice, nothing to be feared. As she gently encouraged Alex, he also touched the tail of the lizard, which he found interesting. While Alex was impressed with the animals, I was impressed with how naturally she interacted with him and appreciated how kind she was to make his experience at the exhibit more special. A few minutes later at another exhibit, an older gentleman observed Alex happily watching small alligators swimming in a wading pool at his display and offered to let Alex touch one of them if he would like. When Alex indicated that he wanted to touch the alligator (which had its mouth duct taped shut so that it couldn’t bite), the man kindly reached into the pond to get the alligator and hold it for Alex to see and touch. Noticing that Ed had a camera, the man also offered to let Alex take a picture with the alligator, which was a thoughtful gesture. Like the young woman, he was friendly and encouraging with Alex, but he did so in a way that was genuinely kind, a seemingly effortless gesture to make Alex happy.

Whenever people are kind to Alex, they endear themselves to Ed and me and reaffirm a faith that the majority of people are good. While not everyone may realize that he has autism, I’m sure that most people realize that Alex is different from observing him a few minutes. When people are willing to look past his differences and reach out to him with genuine kindness, I hope they feel the joy they bring him and the gratitude Ed and I feel for their efforts. Of course, Ed and I make certain that they know how much we appreciate their kindness by having Alex thank them for their gestures and always expressing our gratitude to them, as well. While their actions bless us, I hope that their interactions with Alex bless them, too, so that they might bless other children like him. I’m reminded of a line from Israel Horowitz’s play I teach my seventh grade students that is an adaptation of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol: “An act of kindness is like the first green grape of summer: one leads to another and another and another.” Moreover, I hope that Alex not only appreciates the kindness of others but truly learns from their examples so that he can show others kindness, too.

“We prove ourselves by our purity, our understanding, our patience, our kindness, by the Holy Spirit within us, and by our sincere love.” II Corinthians 6:6


K. C. Wells said...

Beautiful, Pam. Reading about acts of kindness truly buoy my spirits and remind me that there is so much good in the world, especially if we keep our eyes open.

Pam Byrne said...

Thanks for your sweet comments, K.C.! I don't think that people always realize how little things can truly mean a lot. Alex has helped teach me that because he appreciates the simple things in life that bring joy. Anyone who is kind to him means so much to Ed and me. :)